COLUMBUS — An Ohio Valley native is making quite a name for himself on the esports circuit. And to think it all started by playing Xbox.

Adam Apicella, a 1999 Shadyside graduate, had just finished his studies at Ohio University in 2003 and was preparing to enter law school. He was working 70-plus hours a week and putting thousands of miles on his car while working in campaign politics. That just wasn’t for him.

Somehow, despite working that amount of hours, he did find some free time for himself.

“I started playing Halo with some of my friends. I thought it was a lot of fun,” he said. “So, in an effort to find more people to play with, I rented a hotel ballroom in Wheeling, borrowed 20 TVs and Xboxes from friends and family, and decided to run a Halo Tournament. We weren’t prepared when hundreds of people showed up to compete from all over the country.”

That response drew the notice of a couple of guys from New York City and, as they say, the rest is history.

“Mike Sepso and Sundance DiGiovanni had started a company called Major League Gaming. They reached out to me and asked if I would help them with their new company as they had heard my event was a success,” he recalled. “I took an 11-hour train ride from Pittsburgh to New York to meet with them to discuss the opportunity. A few months later, we ended up pulling off the largest gaming event (at the time) in Philadelphia. They offered me a job as vice president of operations as their first hire, and I never went to law school.”

A year-and-a-half later the company had raised its first $10 million and never looked back.

“We operated hundreds of live events and helped to turn gaming into an organized, global sport,” he noted.

In 2015, MLG was purchased by Activision Blizzard for $47 million which launched the very popular Overwatch and Call of Duty leagues. Four years later, Apicella left Activision Blizzard. With his partners in New York and his team in Columbus, they raised $60 million and launched Esports Engine of which he serves as CEO.

“In 2012 we moved our production facilities and warehouse from New York to Columbus due to the lower operating costs, availability of labor, and the closer proximity to major markets for more efficient ground logistics,” he explained. “We eventually opened a broadcast studio here in 2014 where we produce many of our live broadcasts. Throughout our history, we also executed many events in Columbus, including selling out Nationwide Arena twice for major events.

“I always knew that esports would be big, but I did not know it would be this big this fast. When we first started in 2003, we couldn’t even get venues to call us back as they didn’t believe people would actually want to rent a facility for competitive gaming,” he admitted. “Today, we sell out stadiums all over the world and we have major cities bidding against each other to win our business.

“Our immediate goal is to create a profitable business, which we have already achieved eight months in. As we continue to strengthen our workforce, scaling from 22 initial employees to 34, I hope to continue building a team of the best and brightest in the industry to drive the business forward,” he continued. “Long-term, we will build the largest turnkey esports operations platform in the world, leading the charge on organizing competition, event production, and live broadcast for the biggest and best games on the market.”

Has the industry flourished due to the coronavirus or has it declined?

“The industry has not skipped a beat as our competitions can take place in a large stadium, or they can be produced completely over the internet. If anything, we have seen viewership and participation rise exponentially and have even seen traditional sports realize they must adapt their models to include a digital footprint to survive,” he said. “This paradigm shift has seen not only an increase in esports specific production needs, but we’re also receiving a lot of inbound from non endemic brands and traditional sports to help them pivot their strategy.”

Esports, also known as electronic sports, e-sports, or eSports, is a form of sport competition using video games. Esports often takes the form of organized, multiplayer video game competitions, particularly between professional players, individually or as teams. Although organized competitions have long been a part of video game culture, these were largely between amateurs until the late 2000s, when participation by professional gamers and spectatorship in these events through live streaming saw a large surge in popularity. By the 2010s, esports was a significant factor in the video game industry, with many game developers actively designing and providing funding for tournaments and other events.

In addition to Apicella, he is joined at Esports Engine by fellow Ohio Valley natives, Jon Curran, Director of Logistics, a 2003 St. John Central graduate; Ryan Scotka, Director of Product and a 1999 Shadyside graduate; and Arica Kress, Director of Strategic Partnerships, a 1999 SJC grad.

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